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Poor diet is the result of poverty not lack of education

Public health professionals are calling on the prime minister to do more to help the many families in the UK who cannot afford a decent diet. Contrary to popular belief, people who are experiencing food…

Cheaper than the real thing, but less healthy. David Wright, CC BY-NC-ND

Public health professionals are calling on the prime minister to do more to help the many families in the UK who cannot afford a decent diet.

Contrary to popular belief, people who are experiencing food poverty are not ignorant of what they should eat as part of a healthy diet or even where to buy affordable food. There is a wealth of research showing that the most important factor for having a healthy diet is access to affordable healthy food.

Money for food is the key flexible item in the budget of low income households. This means that the quantity and quality of food purchased and consumed by families is the first to suffer at times of financial hardship such as an unexpected bill or cut in work.

It is well documented that family members, particularly women, will go without food to ensure their children have enough. So food poverty is a gender inequality issue too.

Feeling full, not healthy

Families on a low income are not able to afford enough fresh food, such as fruit and vegetables, which are required as part of a healthy diet. Families with limited incomes are more concerned about hunger and are likely to choose food that is filling over what is high in nutrients. Historical studies of household food purchasing patterns suggest that parents with restricted food budgets would choose food with higher satiety value such as a packet of biscuits at less than 50p, compared to a bag of apples at around £1, as a snack for their children.

In the long term this kind of decis may contribute to higher risk of malnutrition among socially deprived households. Plus, families that don’t eat much fresh food are also disadvantaged because they miss out on the protective benefits of a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables against cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.

In the past decade, the strategy for promoting dietary change in the UK has largely focused on providing nutrition education. The emphasis was clearly placed on individual responsibility, relying on disseminating healthy eating advice as the main vehicle for change. Although dietary trends suggest improvements have been made, this is far from universal, with increasing health and nutritional inequalities between socio-economic groups.

Tackling food poverty requires more than just education. Initiatives that focus on nutrition education, or even on practical food skills, only paper over the cracks of the real issue, which is affordable food and a living wage. These small scale initiatives do not reach sufficient numbers of people and are therefore limited as part of the overall solution.

Research consistently demonstrates that low income households find it difficult to adopt healthy eating guidelines. Evidence shows that eating healthily is more expensive. Poor access to shops and inadequate storage and cooking facilities are also a factor for those on a low income – not lack of nutrition knowledge.

The ability to prepare food from raw ingredients – rather than relying on highly processed ready meals, which have less nutritional value than the fresh alternatives – however, does appear to be an important skill that many families have lost over the years. So many families are reliant upon buying processed foods and ready meals, which are not only typically higher in salt, sugar and fat content than fresh alternatives, but also more expensive to buy.

Rise of the food banks

Successive governments in the UK have chosen to ignore the important role of structural factors. This includes access to shopping facilities within neighbourhoods, regulation of the nutritional quality of food in the cheaper ranges of products sold by major retailers and the lack of a food element within welfare benefits.

The rise of food banks reflects the failure in the current welfare system for those families or individuals whose wages haven’t risen along with food prices. They should only be used in emergency situations and certainly not relied upon. Some people have criticised the nutritional value of foods served at food banks and the lack of fresh products, but they are only meant to provide calorific intake to stave off hunger in emergency situations. Indeed, families are restricted in the number of times they can access the services.

Let’s hope the government pays heed to this need to address the structural causes of food poverty. Otherwise the UK may end up on a similar path to the US where food poverty is far more widespread.

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Thomas Goodey

    Researcher

    What a lot of nonsense. It is perfectly possible to eat a decent diet for no more than the cost of rubbish food, so the entire argument falls to the ground.

    "Money for food is the key flexible item in the budget of low income households." Absolutely, because after all it's the costs of the ciggies and the drinks and the cable TV that comes first, and these are not flexible.

    The entire thrust of the article, which the author however doesn't have the guts to say openly, is that the Government should give more dole money to the poor and the unemployed in order to (perhaps) improve their nutrition. As though they would!

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    1. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Seems to me you read a different article from what is on the page.
      You have made a whole lot of assumptions not on the page.
      It is of course perfectly possible to eat a good diet without having to overspend, but the thrust it's not lack of knowledge that stops good dieting is incorrect.
      The information out in the marketplace is skewed away from decent eating and addresses the interests of food companies and others with well financed agendas. There follows pester power from children imitating their friends' diets, also skewed by high sugar content.
      Governments are certainly part of the problem. They have sold out their obligation to work for all the population to work just for their wealthy constituents instead.
      It's the opposite of a left wing conspiracy.

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    2. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to John Doyle

      It's neither lack of knowledge, nor lack of money, that stops the poorer section of the population from having a good diet (on average). It's what they choose to eat, of course. It's how they behave that is the problem. It's their culture.

      And I controvert your contention that it's the Government's job to propagandize the lower classes to eat better, and indeed, more than to propagandize - to nudge, to pressurize, and ultimately to force. It is the Government's job to keep the roads in good order and keep foreigners out of the country, neither of which do they do very well.

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    3. Alastair Middleton

      Bid and Proposal Manager at The Open University

      In reply to John Doyle

      I'm struggling to understand your argument that Governments (this one, or the previous one) are part the problem? They don't force people to go out and buy junk food. If people are so weak willed that they are pursuaded to buy junk food by TV adverts or by pestering children, then they need to look in the mrirror rather than trying to blame someone else.

      Any argument about buying a pack of biscuits instead of some fruit for a snack because it is cheaper just does not stack up when the prices of fruit and veg are actually researched properly, and the nutritional value of each taken into account.

      So,what could Government do differently? Is the answer compulsory cooking classes at school so future generations are able to prepare a meal from scratch?

      Or is it food vouchers instead of cash for certain benefits?

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    4. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      The government is legitimized by their actions in attending to the welfare of all its citizens, not just a particular cohort. That's the grand bargain between the citizens and their government. They are busy betraying it every day now, on all fronts. So in reality the government is not legitimate any longer. It keeps in business because we the people are too busy being conformist or too disinterested in what is happening to them to care, or kept in place by the government's heavy hand.
      The government IS propagandising the lower classes etc to eat better, whether or not you care. Vested interests make it happen.

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    5. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to Alastair Middleton

      Hi Alastair, see my answers to Thomas below. What the government needs to do differently is not pick winners. It's nearly always "guided" advice from vested interests. Surely you can't have missed the influences lobbyists have on government policies? It's rampant in the food and agriculture fields just as in every other field one cares to choose. They have abandoned any serious attempt to be impartial. That plus bone laziness in administration of their duties to all, means there will be no government solution.

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    6. Alastair Middleton

      Bid and Proposal Manager at The Open University

      In reply to John Doyle

      I haven't missed the influence lobbysists have on Government policy - an accusation that can also be made at previous administrations, not just the current one.

      But at the end of the day, people in this country are able to exercise free will (thankfully), and no matter what the Government were to try to do to help people eat a more healthy and balanced diet, there are always going to be people who simply can't be bothered to take the help provided and will continue to eat highly processed food, but will then have the gumption to blame others because they are over weight, or are developing health issues.

      Put simply, people who want to eat healthily will, people who don't, won't, and no amount of Government intervention, or industry lobbying, is going to change that.

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  2. Alastair Middleton

    Bid and Proposal Manager at The Open University

    I absolutely cannot agree the main argument of this article. Fresh, nutricious food is not expensive. You can do wonders with a pack of lentils (£1.09 for 500g from Tesco, ), some tinned tomatoes (34p from Tesco for a can), veg and a few herbs and spices. To keep the costs down even further, people could find out when the supermarkets "yellow label" their food as it approaches it's used by date - I have in the past picked up a kilo of carrots for 5p at my local Sainsburys. This of course does not…

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    1. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Alastair Middleton

      Yes, of course. The article is mere leftist rubbish. What is shocking is that the author is actually the Head of Department of Clinical Sciences & Nutrition at the original Chester Diocesan Training College, renamed Chester College of Education, renamed Chester College of Higher Education, renamed University College Chester, renamed (again) Chester College of Higher Education, renamed (again) University College Chester, and now renamed (for the moment, presumably) University of Chester. Given this, you might think that she would be writing about nutrition, rather than urging that the poor and unemployed should be given more money. Note that the article contains nothing about nutrition as such, merely one-sided advocacy of social engineering. This is, of course, completely in keeping with the history of this "university" as a teacher training college.

      (Isn't Wikipedia wonderful!)

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  3. mary dejevsky

    journalist

    a consideration mentioned, but greatly underestimated, is access to reasonably priced fresh food. in many parts of big cities, especially the poorer parts, there have long been only corner shops, where fresh food is rare, of poor quality and expensive. local buses often do not connect people to supermarkets where fresh food is much cheaper. local authorities either say they can't change the bus routes or don't understand the problem.

    the spread of smaller supermarkets - derided by many - has improved provision of fresh food enormously in just a few months around where I live. the closure of a decent sainsburys two years ago left us with almost no fresh food within a 30 minute walk.a small morrisons and a little waitrose have changed that. morrisons is permanently packed out and seems seriously to have underestimated demand.

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    1. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to mary dejevsky

      This is wandering off the point, but it supports my contention. Why did the decent Sainsbury's close? Presumably because it didn't get enough custom from the underclass to make it worth their while to continue.

      Of course a local authority wouldn't want the bus to go to a convenient supermarket, would they? From their point of view, the supermarkets (and indeed all private companies) are the spawn of Satan, and the last thing that local government should be doing is make it easy for people to get there. They should be patronizing the organic butcher and the specialty baker in their local High Street! See Mary Portas...

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  4. Susan Phillips

    logged in via Twitter

    Evelyn

    I wonder about amount of 'necessary' additional salt...?

    Few years ago in the tropics (Thailand) aged 57y I trained and raced (adventure racing) daytime. Only on race day (8 hrs in the field) did I consume electrolytes. Daily diet ~95% fresh whole food -green carbs way to go, no salt in my prep. But maybe got sufficient salt from regular cans sardines?

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